Unai Emery and Lucas Torreira are bringing the best out of Granit Xhaka in a way Arsene Wenger could not

Arsenal went with their 'Big Four' against Liverpool, but it was the two behind them that went under the radar who made the biggest difference

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Sunday 04 November 2018 21:54
Arsenal Manager Unai Emery: 'today was a good test' for us against Liverpool

Arsenal unleashed their own Fab Four on Saturday, starting Mesut Ozil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Henrikh Mkhitaryan together for the first time. But it was the combination of Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka at the base of midfield that really stood out, anchoring Arsenal’s play and making it difficult for Liverpool to break through them.

Every time Liverpool advanced with the ball, Torreira and Xhaka were there to snuff them out. At one point Xhaka, never known for his speed, kept pace with Mohamed Salah running back and dispossessed him with a perfect slide tackle. It was a moment that summed up the changes Emery has brought to Arsenal, bringing a level of hard work, discipline and physical commitment that sadly faded away under Arsene Wenger.

When Xhaka made that tackle on Salah, Emery celebrated it as if Arsenal had scored a goal. He explained afterwards that every little detail matters in a football match. It was only by being so meticulously detail-oriented – in a way that Wenger was not – that has helped Arsenal to be competitive again.

“The football is 90 minutes, there are a lot of things that happen and when you score it’s the best, and most important moment in the game,” Emery said. “But I also enjoy the small details, individual actions defensively, and offensively.”

It was unusual to see Arsenal playing such a physically intense game but Emery was proud of how his players are starting to take his messages on board. They would never have played with that intensity in the past, and that is a tribute to the changes he has made in his five months in charge. “We are getting the balance in our intensity, like you need against Liverpool,” he said. “It is improving. I want to give the players this idea also, little by little. Today it was clear: we needed to push a lot. I think the players gave their all in their performance, and their desire. Today, for example, a lot of players finished very tired, because the match was very demanding.”

On an individual level Xhaka is looking better than he ever did under Wenger, and there was a stark contrast with how lost he looked playing against Liverpool last season. Emery was impressed with his improvement. “With Xhaka I am happy, because first he’s a very good player, and he has a very good commitment for us,” Emery said. “He wants to improve, and I think he can improve. We want to continue with him to give him the time to improve.”

Granit Xhaka is enjoying his best form for Arsenal

Of course it helps that Torreira is alongside Xhaka now, a player with a remarkable appetite for winning the ball back, reminiscent of N’Golo Kante. He has been the most impressive of Arsenal’s recent signings and Emery was delighted with his partnership with Xhaka here. “Every player works a lot, and it’s very important for our balance that we have two midfielders like Xhaka and Torreira,” he said. “Because the balance in midfield is also important for our balance in defence and our balance offensively. They’re important tactically and also their commitment and their work, running a lot.”

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